Translating Harvey to the classroom

How one professor used the storm as a teachable moment

Throughout the week Hurricane Harvey struck Houston, doctors and other professionals at McGovern Medical School were hard at work helping their neighbors. Many stories of our “Heroes of Harvey” were highlighted across news sites and social media, but one professor saw the potential for using these stories to teach our medical students as part of the medical school curriculum.

Anson John Koshy, M.D., assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics and the McGovern Center of Humanities and Ethics, created a course held in early December for students in the Medical Humanities Scholarly Concentration that invited UTHealth employees to teach future physicians about how life circumstances impact patients. Dr. Koshy says he wanted to highlight co-workers and colleagues who were devastated by the storm but still came to work, aiming to give medical students a one-on-one experience with professionalism at its best and to help teach active listening and underscore the importance of mindfulness and being present in the moment.

“What I commonly heard is that people may not have even been aware of the extent of what others were going through after surviving the hurricane,” Dr. Koshy says. “That was the start of what the McGovern Center could do.”

The McGovern Center for Humanities and Ethics is a part of UTHealth, offering curriculum and research examining the moral, spiritual, and cultural aspects of the biomedical science and health care professions.

Part of the course offered by Dr. Koshy was guided by the philosophies in Dr. Ronald M. Epstein’s book “Attending: Medicine, Mindfulness, and Humanity,” which focuses on sharpening the mindfulness of doctors who are encouraged to deliver accurate diagnoses and build stronger physician-patient connections.

“A big part of the book emphasizes that doctors can just be with patients in their suffering and not turn away,” Dr. Koshy says. “What if you can’t fix it? How do you try to reduce suffering? Even if I can’t fix the problem, I can still be here and be present to listen and give comfort.”

Students supplemented their required readings with a project that involved having a conversation with a UTHealth employee who was impacted by the storm. Following a session co-taught with Houston photographer Robyn Arouty, students both photographed and interviewed participants about their experiences before, during, and after the storm.

“Students did not know the employees they were interviewing and had to learn to interview them in a way that encourages active listening,” Dr. Koshy says. “Every person’s story is unique. Students were taught to listen carefully and to identify non-verbal cues—a skill that is very important to a doctor unraveling a clinical story to come up with a diagnosis and treatment plan.”

Dr. Koshy says some of the stories shared with students were harrowing. He recalls the story of William “Bill” Severson, an audiovisual technician with McGovern Medical School, who experienced the flooding firsthand with his wife and three children. It was the first time Severson had ever seen flooding on that level around his neighborhood. While helping during the evacuation, Severson spoke about putting an infant in a small cooler to keep safe while walking in chest-deep water.

“Bill and his family continue to be impacted by the storm, but he remains dedicated to his job, coming to work every day and doing what he needs to do to help others at work,” Dr. Koshy says.

Severson says his family has returned to his home, but repairs on it are still not completely finished. Despite the frightening ordeal, he was happy to participate in the program.

“I enjoyed sitting down and talking with the students,” Severson says. “I felt it was important that students understood how many people were affected by the storm, both staff and faculty, and it wasn’t difficult at all to talk to them about what had happened.”

Dr. Ann Friedman, a local expert in mindfulness and meditation, spoke to students on the role mindfulness can play in daily life to counter physician fatigue and burnout while maximizing presence during patient encounters.

Feedback from students was very positive, and Dr. Koshy says he is enthusiastic about the program and its future.

“I hope it will turn into something bigger,” Dr. Koshy says.

Our Heroes of Hurricane Harvey – Julie Lucas

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